Having experienced the miraculous highs of the Exodus and the lows of their backsliding and grumbling, and having endured the challenges of hunger, thirst, and war, B’nei Yisrael are now on the verge of their journey’s climax. They are about to experience the fullness of the Divine revelation, to stand at Sinai and receive the Torah. The story of Yitro, however, is interjected just before the climactic moment. Why is it here? What is the purpose of this break in the narrative?
Perhaps because the story of Yitro seems so out of place, there is an opinion among the Rabbis that it actually came after the Giving of the Torah. However, this conclusion only exacerbates the problem; if the story happened later, why introduce it here? Is there some way that the story of Yitro frames the event of the Giving of the Torah?
The first thing that stands out is that Yitro is drawn to B’nei Yisrael because he “heard of all that God had done for Moshe, and for Israel his people, and that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt” (Shemot, 18:1). It was not the laws that he heard – they had not been given yet – but rather the Grand Narrative: A personal God, a God of history that transcends creation and had acted for Israel, a people with a purpose and a destiny. The law is an embodiment of this vision. It exists within that framework and communicates more than just itself; it expresses our relationship to God, our mission, and our vision.
It is this vision that God declares to the people before the Ten Commandments:
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation (20:4-6).
The Torah that you are about to receive, God is saying, emerges from our past relationship: “I brought you out on eagles’ wings.” It is an expression of our current relationship: You must “keep my covenant.” And it points to a larger purpose: “You shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Regardless of whether the people understand the larger message or not, they are bound to observe what God has commanded: “And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (20:8). That is the minimum, not the ideal. The goal is that the mitzvot be done in the context of the brit, as an expression of our relationship to God and our mission to the larger world.
This, then, is the first message of the Yitro story: We must, like Yitro, be drawn in by the vision. We must hear the story and allow it to inspire us and move us to action as an animating force in our lives.
The second theme of the Yitro narrative follows closely on the first. If it is this vision that frames our life of mitzvot, then this vision must also inform how we live such a life. It is quite remarkable that God’s commandments are preceded by a story that tells how Moshe was guided not by a command but by advice, and not the advice of a divine being but that of a mere human and a non-Israelite at that.
Yitro’s advice is no small matter. “If you do this thing… you shall endure, and all this people shall go to their place in peace” (18:23). Thanks to Yitro’s advice, Moshe learns a key lesson in leadership: how to delegate authority so as to focus his energies on those tasks that most require his leadership. Doing so both saves the leader from “wasting away” and provides the people with the leadership they most desperately need. God’s commanding voice would not have succeeded on its own. It needed to be communicated through Moshe’s leadership to be internalized by the people. And Moshe and his leadership needed Yitro’s advice.
While our parashaends with Yitro returning to his place, we find that Moshe attempted to persuade him to stay in Bamidbar: “And he said, Leave us not, I pray you; for you know how we are to camp in the Wilderness, and you have been for us as eyes” (Bamidbar, 10:31). Moshe understood how critical Yitro’s help was and could be. We need your vision, insight, and foresight, Moshe was saying to him, God’s word will not suffice to lead us on the right path. Even the divine mandate of becoming a “holy people and a kingdom of priests” will not suffice. We need vision. Vision of how to interpret and implement that mandate in the real world. Vision to understand where we are, where we are going, and how we need to get there. Vision to show us how God’s command can be lived in the world so as to realize a fulfillment of that divine mandate.
The world of mitzvot, the world of halakha, needs this shaping, this direction. It is thus that Chazal see in Yitro’s advice an emphasis on teaching the people much more than just the letter of the law:
“And you shall show them the path upon which they must walk and the action that they must do” (18:20). ‘The path upon which they must walk’ – this is Torah study. ‘And the action they must do’ – this is good acts. These are the words of R. Yehoshua.
R. Eliezer HaModai said, ‘And you shall show them’ – this is a livelihood. ‘The path’ – this is the visiting of the sick… ‘The action’ – this is the law, ‘that they shall do’ – this is going beyond the letter of the law (Mekhilta on Shemot, 18:20. See also Baba Metzia, 30b).
A true Torah leader teaches more than technical halakhot. A true Torah leader understands that the Torah is also about values and vision; it is about a direction, not just directives. “The path upon which they must walk” – yelchu, the path and the root of the word halakha, is defined by the halakhot, but it is guided by Torah study, by living a life of Torah values and of “good acts.” The true path is one that takes the Torah into one’s livelihood, that shapes one’s life not just by the letter of the law, but its spirit as well.
To connect to this vision, one needs more than a mastery of technical halakhot. Yitro gave his critical advice without knowing halakha. Yitro was able to come to the aid of Moshe and Israel because he had “eyes” that allowed him to connect to the vision of the Torah, independent of its commandments.
At the same time, Yitro understood that such advice can only be of value if it is true to God’s word and God’s vision. Yitro tells Moshe clearly, “If you do this thing, and God commands you, then you will endure.” The spirit of the law only matters when it connects to the letter of the law. What is needed is a leader who can understand the Torah’s vision through the Torah, a leader who will test his or her understanding of the Torah’s vision against God’s word and God’s command. This is a leadership that teaches both “the ordinances and laws” and “the path upon which they must walk.” This is what it means not just to follow halakha but to live the fullness of a life of Torah and mitzvot.
Torah is more than halakha, it is Torah laws, Torah values, and a Torah vision. We need a leadership that can articulate this and that can lead us to follow a life of direction and meaning. We must ask ourselves: Are we just living halakhic lives, or are we living Torah lives? Are we checking “to dos” off of a list, or are we embodying halakha in a way that communicates a compelling vision, in a way that speaks to our brit with God? Whether individuals or leaders, we must all strive to live our lives with scrupulous attention to the finest details of halakha and to combine that precision with a grand and compelling vision. We must be drawn near by a story that inspires us and others to live a life that joins God’s commands with the mandate to become a kingdom of priests and a holy people.